I always like it when I eat at Asian restaurants and they provide each table with jars of the simple sort of Chili Oil that includes a thick layer of chili flakes at the bottom of the red-hued oil itself. It may not always be made in-house, but, home-made or not, a basic Chili Oil without any additional flavorings (like garlic, ginger, or Sichuan peppercorns, for example) is one of my favorite table condiments. You can cook with it too, of course, but I especially enjoy the unctuous, toasted chili flavor when it is drizzled over boiled Chinese dumplings…
- 2 Cups cooking Oil;
- ½ Cup dried Chili Flakes;
- 1 pinch each of Salt and Sugar;
The oil you choose should be fairly neutral in flavor and one with a high smoke-point is preferred. A good choice, and the type I use here, is Peanut Oil. As to the ratio of oil to chili flakes, there is no particular magic to the ½ cup of chili flakes to 2 cups of oil, but that volume ratio (1:4) is a pretty good basic quantity mix. A really simple chili oil would, of course, contain just chili and oil, but the pinch of salt and sugar improves the end result in my opinion.
Mix together the chili, salt and sugar in a sturdy glass jar (or a Pyrex measuring cup, if you like). The method we use here is to add hot oil to the chili and you want to make sure that your container can take the heat (and the sudden temperature change). Many recipes have you add the chili (and other flavorings) to a pan of oil and then bring it to a high heat. This works, but the chances or overcooking the chili (and producing a nasty bitter result) is much higher than my method.
Heat your oil in a saucepan over moderate to high heat until the surface begins to ripple and you can see faint shadows produced by the heat currents on the bottom of the pan. Basically, you want the oil to be heated to just a little bit below its smoking point.
Once this is done, pour about one half of it very carefully into your container with the dry ingredients. As you do so, you will see the flakes of chili get caught up in a bubbling froth at the top of the oil. After this subsides (in about twenty seconds or so), pour in the rest of the oil.
Now, all you need do is let the oil cool. As it does, you will see that it turns a nice reddish-mahogany color from the chili, and the flakes will start to slowly sink. Eventually, almost all the flakes will be at the bottom and, if you like, you can transfer all, or some of the oil (and flakes) to smaller, more decorative jars for table service. You can also strain away all the remaining flakes and just retain the spicy oil, if that suits you (and this is probably preferable if you are mostly using it as a cooking ingredient), but for a table condiment, or a more complex dipping sauce ingredient, leaving the flakes at the bottom of the jar is much better.